Science, Art Intersect to Explore How What’s Seen – and Unseen – Shapes Understanding

Harvard's Peter Galison speaks at the teach-in Image by Ed Brennen
Peter Galison, a Harvard University history of science professor, talks about the importance of images at the 2018 David Lustick Climate Change Teach-In at O'Leary Library.

By Ed Brennen

For all the charts and graphs that scientists use to sound the alarm on climate change, nothing gets people’s attention quite like videos of massive glaciers collapsing into the sea or images of raging wildfires consuming drought-ridden landscapes.

“We know we need science to understand these problems, but we also know that science is not enough to reach people in that visceral way,” says Assoc. Prof. of Environmental Science Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the university’s Climate Change Initiative. “And we also know from the social science research that it’s that visceral reaction that spurs action.”

So this year’s David Lustick Climate Change Teach-In – “Invisibilities: Seeing and Unseeing the Anthropocene” – took a cross-disciplinary approach to the issue. Fusing the fields of science and art, it explored how images can not only shape, but also obscure, people’s understanding of climate and environment. (The “Anthropocene” is the current era during which human activity is seen as the dominant influence on climate and the environment.)

Organized by Assoc. Prof. of Art History Kirsten Swenson as part of the university’s new InterDisciplinary Exchange & Advancement (IDEA) initiative, the teach-in was held on South Campus for the first time, drawing more than 100 students to O’Leary Library.

Kirsten Swenson and Akbar Abjduljalil stand nextt to the teach-in poster Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. of Art History Kirsten Swenson and Climate Change Coalition President Akbar Abjduljalil organized this year's teach-in.

“It might seem like a divergence, but art history has long looked at landscape and land use, going back to the Renaissance,” says Swenson, who researches the “intersection of art, land use and environmental issues.”

Last spring, Swenson was one of five associate professors to receive $10,000 in IDEA funding to lead a collaborative project with other faculty on campus. Swenson’s “Critical Landscapes” project, which will also feature several interactive art projects in 2019, includes Rooney-Varga, Lori Weeden (associate teaching professor of environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences), Frédéric Chain (assistant professor of biological science), Chad Montrie (professor of history) and Misha Rabinovich (assistant professor of art and design).

“I didn’t know these people in sciences before, so the IDEA grant has been a nice opportunity for collaboration,” says Swenson, whose 2015 book “Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics” (which she co-authored with Emily Eliza Scott) was the impetus for the project.

The teach-in’s featured speakers – Peter Galison, a Harvard University history of science professor, and Caroline Jones, an art history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – examined how images shaped public perception of two of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and California’s Aliso Canyon natural gas leak in 2015.

MIT's Caroline Jones speaks during the panel session Image by Ed Brennen
Caroline Jones, an art history professor at MIT, makes a point during the teach-in's panel discussion.

Deepwater Horizon’s wellhead “spill cam,” which Congress demanded that BP make public, provided a 24/7 reminder of how much oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“Watching these webcam images became a form of environmental torture,” said Jones, who added that the toxic chemical BP used to disperse the oil below the surface “kept the real damage well out of camera.”

With the Aliso Canyon gas leak, Jones described how environmental activists had to use an infrared camera to prove that the site wasn’t contained, as gas company officials claimed. Shortly after the video appeared online, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency.

Galison noted that technology (such as drones) and digital media platforms (including YouTube) have helped democratize the dissemination of these types of videos, which in turn has led to “legal cloaking” – such as laws that have made it a crime to film inside some industrial agriculture operations.

“People have begun to fight bitterly to get access to imagery,” Galison says, “to bring back into discussion the things that are constantly being forced into invisibility.”

Juliette Rooney-Varga, Peter Galison and Misha Rabinovich during the panel discussion Image by Ed Brennen
Assoc. Prof. of Environmental Science Juliette Rooney-Varga and Asst. Prof. of Art and Design Misha Rabinovich listen as Harvard's Peter Galison, center, makes a point during the panel discussion.

After their presentation, Galison and Jones joined Rooney-Varga and Rabinovich for a panel discussion moderated by UMass Dartmouth lecturer Rebecca Uchill. Swenson is collaborating with Uchill and Sam Toabe, gallery curator at UMass Boston, on a traveling exhibition next year called “In Place: Local Ecologies of Eastern Mass.”

The teach-in was also supported by the student-led Climate Change Coalition, which received $3,000 from the Sustainability Engagement & Enrichment Development (S.E.E.D.) Fund to host an interdisciplinary sustainability lecture series this year.

As part of this year’s teach-in, the CCC also hosted a “Sowing SEEDs of Sustainability” event at O’Leary where students learned about sustainability-related research and resources on campus and brainstormed SEED Fund projects for 2019.

The coalition’s new president, sophomore economics major Akbar Abjduljalil, says the teach-in gave students a unique view of the climate change issue.

“I’m around the sciences a lot, so it’s interesting to see the perspective of social science and the humanities,” he says. “It was good for me to cross over to the other side, and I think it was good for others, too.”